'Incredibly Rare' Tomb Holds Hugging Skeletons

Archaeologists unearthed the 5K-year-old tomb in a field in Scotland
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 26, 2023 12:14 PM CDT
'This Once Impressive Monument Was Nearly Lost'
Archaeologists excavate the tomb in the Scottish village of Holm.   (National Museums Scotland)

On the surface, "it's just a gently rolling field of grass" in Scotland. But below the ground, archaeologists have discovered an "incredibly rare" 5,000-year-old tomb holding the remains of 14 people, two of whom appear to be hugging and one who appears to be reaching out for another. The tomb in the village of Holm on the largest of the Orkney Islands features six cells surrounding a large stone chamber, reached through a 23-foot passageway, and would've once been marked by an impressive rock pile or cairn, representing the "pinnacle of Neolithic engineering in northern Britain," National Museums Scotland says in a Tuesday statement. The cairn is thought to have been mostly destroyed in the late 18th or early 19th century so the stones could be used to build a farmhouse.

Decades later, in 1896, rudimentary excavations revealed the presence of eight skeletons, which were reburied, leading local antiquities collector James Walls Cursiter to speculate about a likely tomb. While reviewing Cursiter's notes, modern-day archaeologists gained enough clues, including a sketch of the farm's location, to launch an excavation aimed at uncovering the burial chamber, per CNN and Live Science. "As soon as we took the turf off the top it was apparent that what we had was quite a big monument," excavation co-director Hugo Anderson-Whymark of NMS tells Live Science. Inside were 14 skeletons of men, women, and children, plus other human remains and artifacts, including pottery, stone tools, and a bone pin, per CBS News.

Two of the skeletons were positioned as if they were embracing, with the remains of two children over their heads. "We also found another skeleton whose arm was outstretched toward a different skeleton," says Anderson-Whymark, per Live Science. "It is incredibly rare to find these tomb deposits, even in well-preserved chambered tombs," says excavation co-director Vicki Cummings of Cardiff University. "It's incredible to think this once impressive monument was nearly lost without record," Anderson-Whymark adds, per CBS. During the Neolithic period, the tomb would've included an "incredibly impressive" 50-foot-wide mound, "very substantial stonework, very impressive architecture," the archaeologist tells CNN. Just 12 similar tombs, dubbed "Maes Howe-type" graves, are known to exist in Orkney. All others are visible aboveground. (More discoveries stories.)

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